Lionel Messi’s Instagram post of a pizza box from Banchero pizzeria in Miami Beach last Friday night was the first clue that he had not traveled to Atlanta with his Inter Miami teammates and would not play Saturday against Atlanta United, disappointing a sizable segment of the 71,635 fans who paid big bucks to attend the game.
The next hint came when images of the Argentine star attending his son Thiago’s youth soccer match surfaced on social media on Saturday, hours before Inter Miami lost 5-2 to Atlanta.
Entering this week, the most pressing question among Inter Miami fans is whether Messi will return to the lineup Wednesday night at home against Toronto FC. He will have had 13 days of rest following his last game, a 1-0 victory with the Argentine national team over Ecuador at a World Cup qualifier in Buenos Aires.
Inter Miami coach Tata Martino, who said Messi and Jordi Alba were left home from Atlanta to deal with “muscle fatigue”, is expected to give an update before training on Tuesday morning. In the meantime, fans have once again turned to social media for clues; and they were hopeful after seeing Messi’s Monday morning Instagram post.
It was a “paid partnership” post advertising Apple TV’s MLS Season Pass and the caption read: “It’s @intermiamicf vs @torontofc on Wednesday, and the race for the playoffs is one. Check out every match with a One Month Free Trial of #MLSSeasonPass on @appletv. Use the link in my bio to sign up.”
Many fans who posted comments assumed his message was a hint that he will be on the field at DRV PNK Stadium against Toronto. Also, Inter Miami posted on its Twitter account photos of four players training Monday, including Messi, under the caption: “Back in the lab prepping for Wednesday.”
Martino was asked after the loss to Atlanta about Messi’s availability Wednesday, and he gave no definitive answer but suggested the priority is the U.S. Open Cup final Sept. 27 against Houston Dynamo.
When Martino, Messi, Sergio Busquets and Alba joined the team in July, Inter Miami was in last place in the MLS standings and 12 points short of the playoff line with 12 league games to go. The team then went on a 12-game unbeaten streak, but most of those were summer Cup tournament games. Since the MLS season resumed, Miami has won three games, lost one and tied one and closed the gap to seven points from the playoffs with seven games to go.
“Our decisions are based on what we have in the days ahead because we are in the hunt for the playoffs, but we also have the (U.S. Open Cup final) game on the 27th and that is just one game, for a title,” Martino said. “The league is seven, eight more dates, and if we win them all it is not certain we get in. We started this run way behind (in the standings). We won’t abandon our hopes, but our focus is on the 27th.”
Asked if Messi would play Wednesday, Martino said: “Leo and Jordi will train on Sunday and the rest of the team will have the day off. We will go day by day. If he is feeling well, he might play. If not, he will wait a few more days.”
MLS commissioner Don Garber attended the Miami vs. Atlanta game Saturday and shared his views on Messi’s absence with a group of reporters who were on site.
“No league commissioner can force any team or any player to do what’s not in the interest and the health and safety of the player,” Garber said. “Messi has played probably more games than anybody ever expected. He came in quickly and has played in the US Open Cup. He’s played in the Leagues Cup. He’s played for his country and scored a goal against Ecuador. It’s a lot of games for a guy who has delivered in so many ways on and off the field. These are decisions that clubs have to make and commissioners will support any decision that the team makes.”
Messi played 11 games over 44 days for Inter Miami, then traveled to Argentina and played against Ecuador, traveled to Bolivia but sat out that game, and then returned to South Florida. Martino insisted Messi is not injured, just fatigued.
Inter Miami has four games over the next 11 days. Following the Toronto game Miami plays at Orlando City on Sunday, at home in the U.S. Open Cup final Sept. 27 and home against New York City FC on Sept. 30.